Interview: Michael Toscano

Michael Toscano speaking at the Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference in 2013. Credit: YouTube

Michael Toscano speaking at the Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference in 2013. Credit: YouTube

Michael Toscano, known to most people in the drone industry simply as “Mike,” is the outgoing President and Chief Executive Officer of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the world’s largest trade association for unmanned systems. Founded in 1972, AUVSI represents 600 companies from over 60 countries. Toscano, who took over in 2008, has held the position of the industry’s leading public representative during what has been, without a doubt, the most significant period of expansion and proliferation in the history of drone technology. During his tenure, Toscano has watched as drones have become increasingly prominent on the domestic, international, military, and civilian stages. He has carried the industry’s campaign against the use of the word drone (acronyms, like UAV for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, are the preferred nomenclature) and he has spearheaded efforts to convince the public and lawmakers of the utility and, as he would put, life saving potential of drone technology.

Prior to joining AUVSI, Toscano served in the Department of  Defense on the staff of the Under Secretary of  Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics. He coordinated the Joint Robotics Program, the Physical Security Equipment Action Group, and the Joint Unexploded Ordnance Detection and Clearance Program.

Richard Whittle, who himself was recently interviewed for this site, interviewed Toscano at the National Air and Space Museum in early January.

Center for the Study of the Drone You began working on robotics issues in the Pentagon back in 1990, when what today we call drones were at best a niche technology. Describe how the universe of unmanned aircraft looked at that time, compare it to now, and tell us the truth: is there any way you could have anticipated in those days what’s happening today?

Michael Toscano Back in 1990, the technology of unmanned systems—in this particular case unmanned aircraft systems—was a technology that was birthed out of the Defense Department, and basically out of the Vietnam War, when they used them to find downed pilots and as targets. That’s what a drone really was, and that technology came from the British, when they had the Honeybee. And no one could have envisioned it. As a matter of fact, in the early days, the military fought about this technology because it was different from how they normally did aviation. And if you go back and check the record, you’ll see where the program was given to the services and then taken over by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, back to the services, back to OSD, back to the services. It was going back and forth between the services and OSD because there really wasn’t the level of champion to make this happen. People didn’t really believe what it could do. And there were people who had vision, but the men and women who were entrusted in the early days didn’t see the full potential, or at least the bureaucratic process did not see the potential, of how this could happen. But there were enough people who did have visionary aspects, and with DARPA’s involvement, they started the creation of some of the unmanned aircraft systems in the early days, and it started to take on legs.

No one could have envisioned where this technology has gone. It’s almost like the cell phone in the year 2000. Two percent of the world had a cell phone. And here we are 15 years later and more than 80% of the world has a cell phone. Like any of those revolutionary or disruptive technologies, you have to field the technology before people truly understand how it will change their life, how it will make things better. And this is very much true for aviation in the beginning. The military did not fully understand this until they started to field it, and once they started to field it, and the men and the women at the tip of the spear started to utilize it, they realized that this is a much more effective, efficient, and in many cases a life-saving technology.

Drone So you do agree that what we’re seeing today is a drone revolution?

Toscano I wholeheartedly agree with that and whatever the predictions are of usage, they’re wrong and they’re low, okay? I do believe that once we start fielding this technology, especially on the commercial side, where normal people see how it can affect their life, you will see the numbers like I mentioned with the cell phone go exponential.

The Royal Air Force de Havilland DH-82B Queen Bee, a remote-controlled aircraft introduced in 1932 in Britain. Credit: RAF

Drone You took over as the president and CEO for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems international in 2008. In the space of those six years, how did things change? How did the landscape of drones change?

Toscano You know, six years doesn’t sound like a very long period of time. But it is an eternity with a revolutionary-type technology. And I would even say that in the last 18 months the thinking has already changed. In the last 18 months, from a commercial standpoint, many people now believe that we will field the low altitudes—the small type systems—first, and then the very high altitudes—above 60,000 feet—and then come back into the medium-altitude ones where most manned aviation flies. Two or three years ago, that was not the concept. People were looking at how to fly in the band where manned aviation flies. And a lot of this is because of the maturation of the technology. And we are seeing that these things that can fly 500 ft. and below have tremendous applications, especially in the commercial application world. And the systems that can fly above 60,000 feet, you know, as low flying satellites, are becoming a reality. So just within a matter of six years, we’ve had numerous different versions of people’s thinking about the realm of the possible and what is the realm of the obtainable within a short period of time of utilizing this technology. That’s what is so exciting about this.

Drone The revolution began when the military began to see drones as a useful tool. Enumerate some of the uses that you see coming along now for the low altitude and high altitude drones

Toscano So there is a distinction between the military, the civil, and the commercial applications. From the commercial side, we’ve seen this happen time and time again.  I say this is a revolutionary technology on an evolutionary path. And what is going to take place is, as it gets commercialized, it will become reliable, and it will become affordable. And so now you’re going to be able to utilize this technology across a very wide spectrum. But this technology really does two things very, very well. It’s very good as a delivery system, and it’s also very good as a situational awareness system. And I would guess that the majority of applications will be in the situational awareness, or the ability to extend the eyes and the ears of the human being. Because with situational awareness, people make better decisions. No matter what you are trying to do, if you have good information, you usually get it right sooner rather than later. Whether you’re trying to determine whether or not a roof needs to be repaired or whether power lines are down or whether the fire is over here or whatever a search and rescue —whatever the mission may be—if you have good information, you deploy your other assets, which is usually human beings, in a more appropriate and safe way. That’s why I believe situational awareness is going to be one of the predominant roles that you’re going to see. But as a delivery system, we’ve already started to see its use with Amazon and with medical supplies. Whether it’s a taco copter, or whatever, doing delivery, this is a much more efficient and effective way to do that.

This technology really does two things very, very well. It’s very good as a delivery system, and it’s also very good as a situational awareness system.

Drone How does air traffic control work at 100 ft. above the street? Is that really a practical idea, or is that something like the flying car, which we’ve heard about since the 1930s but has never come to practice?

Toscano Well, there were promises made in the ‘60s and the ‘80s in which unmanned systems failed miserably. Where they failed is that the maturation of the technology was just not able to meet the expectations of what the people thought the technology would be able to do. What has happened is that with Moore’s Law and Metcalf’s Law, the ability to have processing capability at half the cost in 18 months or less has continued. Moore’s Law, which was supposed to have stopped, has not. It has still continued to this day. To the point now where you can do real-time sensing, and transition that to actuation in a very safe manner.

Drone Put that into layman’s terms.

Toscano You now have very stable drones. No matter what the wind conditions are, a drone can adjust in a very real time manner. It has a little bit of a force field, so if you put your hand towards it, it’ll move away from you. If you say, “I want you to go to these coordinates,” if there’s an obstacle in these coordinates it can sense the obstacle or the incident that could take place, and it reacts accordingly. It has the ability to process information and react in a real-time manner so as to not cause an incident to take place. And this is one of the real marvels that has taken place. When you look at an unmanned aircraft system or a drone, there really isn’t any revolutionary technology that’s come about. What you’ve utilized is the technology that has developed from cell phones and from different other aspects of technology and just put it together. There wasn’t any watershed event that happened. I do believe there is going to be a watershed event in technology that’s coming down the pike.

When you talk about an unmanned system, it is all about safety. And to maintain safety for an unmanned aircraft system, you really can’t do two things: you can’t run into anything flying in the national airspace, or the global airspace, and you can’t fall out of the national airspace or the global airspace. It’s “do no harm.” We’ve replicated the olfactors of a dog, and we’ve replicated the sonar of a dolphin. I believe in the near future we’re going to replicate how birds fly in the sky and how fish swim in the ocean and don’t bump into each other, whether it’s a force field or whether it’s some sort of sensing capability that they have within a networking type of system. So if you can avoid the fact of bumping into something, then that is the biggest part of safety for an unmanned aircraft system.

When you talk about an unmanned system, it is all about safety.

Drone How close are we to actually getting these safety systems to the point where they’re practical and affordable?

Toscano Anybody who flies knows that sense and avoid, or detect and avoid, for an unmanned system, is the holy grail. I’ve got to believe—I don’t know for a fact—but if Amazon and Google and others want to be able to deliver packages within 30 minutes 10 miles from a fulfillment center for packages five pounds or less in populated areas, then they’re going to have to have this technology. So if the people who want to utilize the technology recognize that this is the showstopper that faces them right now, then that’s what they’re going to have to come up with. So I do believe that the commercial market will dictate that as this technology becomes available. Now is it going to be perfect the first time? The first cell phone, if you remember, was the size of a loaf of bread, had a very long antenna, dropped out 50 percent of the time, and the quality wasn’t that good. But that was the first version of it. And as the technology improves, we finally get to see something that fits into our hand and has more computational abilities than the Apollo spacecraft. So you have to continue by fielding it and then improving it. And each time the generation gets more and more desirable to what our end states are going to be.

Drone So not next year.

Toscano Not next year, but definitely within our lifetime, and probably within the next five to ten years.

The Northrop Grumman booth at the AUVSI 2013 Conference in Washington D.C. Credit: Arthur Holland Michel

The Northrop Grumman booth at the AUVSI 2013 Conference in Washington D.C. Credit: Arthur Holland Michel

Drone It seems that the concerns about drones or unmanned aircraft fall into three main categories: their military use and their use in targeted killings; their effect on air safety, which we’ve just been discussing; and their effect on personal privacy. First, are unmanned aircraft going to replace military manned aircraft?

Toscano I don’t believe they will. I think they’ll be complementary. You’re still going to have manned and unmanned systems collaboratively working together.

Drone A lot of people say the F-35 is the last manned fighter plane. Do you subscribe to that?

Toscano I believe that we are going to see an evolution where there’ll be one manned system that will have multiple unmanned systems that will collaborate with them. The human being is still a very capable system, but we’re also the weakest link in the system sometimes. And what I mean by that is that humans make errors. But humans also have the capacity to be intuitive. We make decisions. Depending upon what the mission is going to be and the operations you’re going to have, I think there still could be manned operations. Does it have to be? The answer is no.

You know, when the car came along, the horse industry didn’t go away. As a matter of fact, we just had the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby, alright? People like utilizing horses. We like interacting with them, we use them for pleasure, we like riding them or what not. But what you don’t see is people riding horses back and forth to work every day. From a mobility standpoint, we replaced a horse with a car, but we still have horses. I think what you’re going to see is the same thing, and what this implies in the military is that you will replace all those mundane times when you don’t want to have the human being flying those aircraft, but there’s still going to be times where you’re going to want the manned aircraft.

Drone One of the controversies is that they’ve been used for targeted killings.

Toscano Targeted killings, okay. We have been doing airstrikes for 20, 30, 40, 50 years. And now instead of the delivery system being one that’s flown by a man or a woman who’s physically sitting in it, we’re delivering it with the exact same platform, it’s just that the person is not physically sitting in it. When you say or hear the term ‘drone strike,’ it’s just an air strike, it’s just that the platform got from point A to point B in a much more effective and efficient way. From a military standpoint, the Hellfire missile that comes off a Predator is still the Hellfire missile that comes off an Apache helicopter. It’s the same missile and it’s delivered on target the exact same way, it’s just that the missile is getting from point A to point B in a different manner. The other thing is that by using the system that does the surveillance and is also able to launch the weapon, you have now made it more effective and efficient. And manned systems can’t stay up as long as the unmanned systems. You can fly a Predator to a point of interest and loiter for 24 hours. Whereas you don’t have manned aircraft that can loiter for 24 hours. You have to replace them every eight hours or so with another set of two or three people. And that’s why you get the efficiencies and the effectiveness.

Anything that explodes is called a drone strike

Drone Based on what you were saying about the Hellfire missile, which, I will just note, has a warhead of about 20 pounds versus the usual bombs that are 500 pounds or more, I assume that you would disagree with groups such as Code Pink who believe that armed drones used in targeted killings have resulted in egregious numbers of innocent civilian casualties.

Toscano I don’t have the exact facts and figures, but what I will tell you is this: many times a point is going to be driven and you don’t get all the facts or figures correct. Some of the stories may be for the sensationalism: anything that explodes is called a drone strike. And the media pays attention to it regardless of whether it came from a manned or an unmanned system. If they don’t know where the missile came from, how do they know it was a drone? And so I question the validity of some of these stories, because you don’t have all the right facts and figures. Is this a better delivery system? The answer is yes. Did someone make a decision that this is the target that needs to be executed through determination? Yes, and it was done in an effective and efficient way. If we’re going to send men and women into harm’s way, then I want to make sure that our men and women have the best probability of success, and to come home safely.

Medea Benjamin of Code Pink outside the AUVSI convention in Washington DC on Aug. 22, 2013. Credit: Dan Gettinger

Medea Benjamin of Code Pink outside the AUVSI convention in Washington DC on Aug. 22, 2013. Credit: Dan Gettinger

Drone That touches on another criticism, another fear of armed drones. That is that they make war easy, because the operator is sitting in a ground control station outside Las Vegas instead of flying in the aircraft. What’s your personal opinion? Does having this weapon make us more likely to go to war?

Toscano This is my personal opinion: war is a very difficult and hard determination to make. And I hope people in positions of power who make that determination don’t do so lightly. But if we have made a determination that we are going into a conflict or going into a war-type situation, then we should try to make sure that we apply all the best technology and capabilities to the men and women that we have; we should make sure they’re properly trained, make sure they’re properly equipped to be able to succeed in whatever task that we have given them. And whatever technology is available, I feel we should be able to utilize that in order to end the conflict as soon as possible and with minimal amount of both collateral damage and damage at all. So if this is technology that can help end a conflict, then the answer is yes. But the objective is not to get into the conflict in the first place.

Drone Do you feel there’s a danger that this technology will proliferate among other countries to the point that it presents a new threat to the United States or U.S. interests?

Toscano My dad used to say “You can’t stop stupid, and you can’t stop bad people from doing bad things.” And so if this technology is going to help the good guys, then yes, it’s going to help the bad, too, to do things in a more effective and efficient way. And we’ve seen that be true with any technology, even with the cell phone technology. If it helps us communicate effectively, it helps the bad guys communicate. The same thing with computers: the computers help us, but it helps the bad guys. And the bad side with computers is you’ve got identity theft, pornography, bullying—you’ve got things that people didn’t intend the technology to ever be used for. But bad people will use technology to do bad things. And I believe you have to hold people accountable. You can’t take a hammer and throw it in the middle of a crowd. If you do and it hits somebody, you’re going to be held accountable. Well, you can’t fly a drone into a crowd. If you do and it comes down and hits somebody, you’re going to be held accountable.

Drone  I presume you have a sense of what countries have drone industries that are actually capable of producing something that’s useful. So how do you see the proliferation issue? Do you see this technology proliferating as a military technology, or overseas, or is it too difficult for most countries to be able to produce the kind of military drones we have?

Toscano I think proliferation is going to happen on the commercial side. You’re already starting to see this right now. Most people are good in this world. We obviously have some bad actors and whatnot, but the majority of people try to follow the rules and try to do things in a safe and appropriate way. When you talk about unmanned systems, what you’re really looking at is the risk acceptance. And risk acceptance, in my estimation, is based upon how much value it brings you, to how much downside you’re willing to accept. I use the analogy of the automobile. The automobile brings us great joy. It’s a very integral part of our life today. Well, we still kill 1.2 million people every year in this world by using the automobile. So there is a downside to this technology. Here in the United States we have over 33,000 deaths per year, we have over 6.3 million accidents. And yet, we still drive cars every day because the upside is so great that we are willing to accept the downside of it. So we don’t know all the upsides of this technology. And we’re only guessing what some of the downsides are going to be. We haven’t really seen those happen. Do we think they could happen? The answer is definitely yes. But it might not be to those numbers that people are suspecting it might be. You really have to field this technology to really understand all the upsides, and what those downsides are going to be. And I’m sure they’re going to come up with things we haven’t even thought of, either.

But bad people will use technology to do bad things. And I believe you have to hold people accountable.

Drone Are U.S. export restrictions preventing Americans and American manufacturers of drones and drone technology from getting a fair share in the global market of unmanned air systems?

Toscano That gets us into the ITAR [International Traffic in Arms Regulations] issues we have. And the answer is yes. But that’s also true with manned systems and other systems as well. But the U.S. is losing out today to the global market that’s available when it comes to unmanned systems and drone technology.

An Israeli unmanned ground vehicle at i-HLS 2013 Conference in Tel Aviv. Credit: Andrew Beale

An Israeli unmanned ground vehicle at i-HLS 2013 Conference in Tel Aviv. Credit: Andrew Beale

Drone Who’s winning in that market? Russia, China, Israel?

Toscano Well, there’s a variety. Europe, Canada, Australia, and now we’re starting to see it happen in Asia, in China. Just recently at the Consumer Electronics Show, there was a four-fold increase in the number of unmanned systems, mostly on the consumer drone side of the house, that were present. A lot of them came from China and other parts of Asia and other places that are now starting to understand how to build this technology and make it reliable.

Drone Three years ago, Congress, with what was—I think it’s fair to say—fairly strong pressure from your organization, gave the Federal Aviation Administration a mandate to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system, beginning this October 1. What does that mandate really mean, and how is the FAA doing in its effort to meet that mandate?

Toscano Unfortunately, the FAA has not met any of the deadlines that were stated in the Modernization Act of February 14, 2012. To their, I won’t say defense, but to their credit, is that they haven’t always had the resources to be able to do what they needed to do, because the task is a very daunting task.

Drone And Congress didn’t give them any extra money or any extra people.

Toscano Congress didn’t give them any money or any people, and then you saw frustration within a few months. There was a lot of turmoil, there was a lot of disarray. In the last House Aviation Subcommittee hearing that they had, in which you had the FAA, the DOJ [Department of Justice], DoD [Department of Defense], and a few industry folks there, the questions that were being asked, for the first time, were all about, “how come we can’t field this technology? How come other countries are starting to do this and we can’t? How come we’re not taking advantage of the jobs? How come the ITAR restrictions?” It was more of, “Why can’t we have this technology?” For the last umpteen years prior to this, it was, “Are you going to cause safety issues? Are you going to cause privacy issues? Have you done due diligence to make sure this is going to be OK?” In the tone of the questions, you could see the shift in the leadership, and this is more of a leadership issue than a technical issue. You have to understand that with any early adoption of new technology, there are going to be some times when the fertilizer hits the ventilation. The industry and the leadership need to be willing to make sure that we’ve done due diligence to make sure that the continuation will go forward.

More and more people are recognizing the upside of this technology, whether it be in the movie industry, whether it be in the agriculture industry, whether it be in search-and-rescue, whether it be in oil and gas, all these fields are saying, “This is a better mousetrap. This is a better way of doing business.” As a friend of mine once said, he said, “Technology always wins, because it’s a better way of doing business.” So this technology will win, it’s just a question of how do we integrate it in a safe manner.

You have to understand that with any early adoption of new technology, there are going to be some times when the fertilizer hits the ventilation.

Drone Do you feel that the FAA is guilty of dragging its feet?

Toscano That’s a difficult question to answer. In the sense that I believe the FAA should be able to determine an acceptable level of utilization of this technology in a more timely manner, and what I mean by that is, yes they’ve come up with Section 333 that has allowed certain uses, which is a Band-Aid fix, but we should have had, or we should already know, what the small rule is for unmanned aircraft. It’s been rattling around for about four and a half, five years.

Drone That is a rule that the FAA is supposed to write, to allow people to use these little quad-copters.

Toscano I would say low altitude, less than 50 lbs. It was in the 2012 determination. Yes, in 2012 we should have had that—

Drone —for commercial purposes.

Toscano Yes, for commercial use. For low hanging—no pun intended—for agriculture, for pipeline, power line monitoring, for the movie industry, all those uses where you have a controlled environment and you can assess it from a safety standpoint, you should be able to field this technology.

Drone And they haven’t even issued a proposed rule yet for public comment?

Toscano The draft rule, as of this conversation, has left the FAA and gone to OMB [Office of Management and Budget]. So now it’s between the FAA and the OMB before the rule will come out.

Drone How long will it take to get public comment?

Toscano Either 60, 90, or 120 days after the rule comes out for public comment. I suspect it will be the 90 day timeframe. Once that happens, the FAA has to adjudicate all those comments. And the prediction is they’ll have someplace between 30,000 and 100,000 comments that will be brought forward, because this technology is of interest to so many people. And that’s what’s going to take such a long period of time. I do believe that the leadership in this country is going to say, “That’s unacceptable, we need to do something sooner.” So I think, once the rule finally comes out, there will be pressure on the FAA to be able to respond back sooner than later, with a rule. As of this moment, I have not read what that rule is, but if I had to guess, some of it will be pretty straightforward, I mean 400 feet and below, daylight only, line of sight, and 55 lbs. or less. That’s kind of the core of what qualifies as appropriate.

You also have to determine the airworthiness of the platform and that the operator is properly trained. The appropriate level of training depends on what you’re flying. And what asset you’re looking at. You have to make sure that you have a safe operation environment, or that you’re following the federal operating regulation. Which means you don’t fly within 500 ft. of power lines, you don’t fly within five miles of an airport, things of this nature. These are the core tenets that you have.

Drone A March 2013 AUVSI report on the economic impact of unmanned aircraft systems integration in the United States stated that 70,000 jobs would be created and there would be $13.6 billion of economic impact. The report stated that this would grow through 2025, when more than 100,000 jobs would be created with an economic impact of $82 billion. Do you think this forecast still holds water?

Toscano When the forecast was done, it was based on data that we had collected in the 2012 timeframe. The world has changed, as I mentioned to you, in the last 18, 24 months. I think these numbers are low. The realization now is that small UASs are going to be a phenomenal economic benefit. And when you talk about job creation, there are now more things that people think we can do with this technology than ever before. Our study was predicated on the idea that agriculture would be a huge industry for this. It’s a $6.3 trillion industry, so if you improve something by 10%, that’s still a very big number that you have there. Now what’s happened is that all these other industries are starting to pop up that we didn’t even anticipate would happen as soon. And what we said is, from the time you field this technology, you’re going to see this growth from that point. The numbers are assuming that in 2015 you’re going to have the ability to fly in the national airspace. It’s all about access to the national airspace.

Drone But that’s not happening, right?

Toscano Access, again, has been limited, through the Section 333s, of which there are thirteen that have been granted. And those are in the low-hanging fruit area. Those are the things that you look at and see the gas stacks. Well, there aren’t too many people at the top of a gas stack. And we look at power-lines. You look at agriculture. You look at real estate. Again, all of these exemptions are all based on safety. And this is what people have to understand. Once we can determine that we can operate in a safe manner—which we’re just a technology discovery away from eliminating as a fear factor, or issue to be contended with—once we can do that, then this technology’s going to go off in an exponential manner. With the numbers we’re starting to hear from the Consumer Electronics Show, you’re going to have billions of these things sold in the next ten years, when this thing happens. The small drones that are being produced and being sold. The hundreds of thousands a year that are now being sold or being shipped by Amazon and Google and others. DJI says that since their inception they have now sold over 750,000 products. The numbers are going to continue to rise in an exponential manner, as opposed to a linear manner, and once we can field these things and have authorization to use them, I think it’s going to be even more staggering.

You take the technology, and depending on the society you’re in, you get to dictate how that technology is going to be used.

Drone What’s your feeling about the privacy issue? Do drones present a new threat to privacy? Do we need new laws and regulations to ensure that our privacy is protected?

Toscano In the past five years or so, I think people have understood that really when you talk about privacy, and really the whole privacy issue, what you’re really talking about is big data. You’re talking about the collection, the analysis, the storage, the dissemination, and the destruction of information. I truly believe how you collect it isn’t all that important. It’s what you do with it. And you know, we’re seeing that with cell phones, we’re seeing that with computers, we’re seeing that with smart cars. In our everyday life we have more and more, I’ll use the term lost privacy, for convenience, or for more advantages that we can have by utilizing this.

Drone We’ve traded privacy.

Toscano That’s exactly right. It’s how you look at it. How you collect it is not that important. Yes, I do believe we need to have new rules or different laws. When we talk about privacy, what is your expectation of privacy? If you’re out in public today with cell phones and fixed cameras everywhere, and the surveillance that we have, your expectation is very minimal, I think, at best. I look at the generations of people that are coming up behind us. I have a four-year-old grandson, and I call him a “digital native.” At thirteen months of age, he knew how to use an iPad, and he has been connected all of his life. He will always have known being connected and his expectation of privacy is so much less. Because he wants that continuity, he wants to be able to interface, and interact 24/7.

So when you go back to the privacy concerns, I believe you have to hold people accountable if they misuse or act in an inappropriate way. Most states have “Peeping Tom” laws. Or you have the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment was written in 1791. It basically says, if you violate my privacy rights, then you are going to be held accountable. The analogy I use is that if I took a ladder and put it up against your house and looked in your window I’d be breaking, probably, a “Peeping Tom” law and some other privacy laws. If I did it from across the street with a high-powered pair of binoculars or camera, I’d be breaking the law. If I did it with a manned helicopter outside your window, I’d be breaking the law. And if I did it with an unmanned system, I’d be breaking the law. It doesn’t make a difference how you break a law, it’s if you break a law. So if people take this technology and misuse it, to break the law as it pertains to privacy, they should be held accountable for it.

Drone I think you agree that whenever a new technology comes along that is disruptive, we as a society need to adjust to it. When we switched to cars, we needed stoplights—

Toscano And infrastructure put into place—

Drone New regulations. And so we face the same situation now.

Toscano It’s interesting. In San Francisco, I believe the year was 1918, if you were going to drive a car, you had to have a person with a red flag walking in front of the car. Because of all the technologies that were there for mobility, the car was the least robust of that time. Because you had trolley cars, you had bicycles, you had wagons, you had horses, you had people walking. A variety of different modalities that were available. The car really didn’t take off until we started to build an infrastructure in the ‘30s and the ‘40s. We came up with laws, and then each state had the ability to change the speed limit. So we have different laws and rules depending on where you are and how you’re going to utilize this thing called a car. You have places in the world where they don’t have speed limits at all: you can drive as fast as you want. So you take the technology, and depending on the society you’re in, you get to dictate how that technology is going to be used. The same thing is going to be true with unmanned aircraft or drones, depending on how you can utilize these systems. There are basic rules that go across the board and then there are specific ones depending on where you are.

Drone How deep into our lives is drone technology going to penetrate? Get out your crystal ball and tell me, twenty, thirty years from now, are we all going to be depending on drones in some way?

Toscano I get that question a lot. People ask, “So what are the uses that we have for drones?” I tell people, I don’t know. We won’t know until we start fielding it. What we don’t know is the second- and third-tier effects. And what I mean by that is that right now the way that we do bridge inspection is we close down a lane of traffic and we suspend people over the sides of a bridge to do bridge inspection. Well, every time you close down a lane of traffic, you usually end up getting accidents. And from those accidents, sometimes there can even be deaths. With this technology, you don’t have to close down a lane of traffic. You can do an inspection just by flying under the bridge and doing the operation, in a much more effective, efficient, and life-saving way. Well, how do you calculate that impact, of saving those lives of people who would have died because you had to close down a lane of traffic? I live in Washington, D.C. I promise, if you close down one of the lanes of the 14th Street Bridge, it has ramifications all the way out to Route 66. There are all sorts of things that we won’t know until we start fielding it.

But I will tell you this: it is much more effective, much more efficient, and it is life saving. Because of that, people will take that and utilize it and do things in a safer and better way. When I say efficient, it’s a cheaper way of doing it. You can get more done in less time and do it better. That is a winning solution. That is a winning combination people will gravitate to. And when you say, “what are all the effects?” I don’t know. It will affect every aspect. When you have a repairman working on the AC unit in your backyard, and he realizes he needs a part, rather than getting in his truck and driving to the warehouse, getting the part, coming back, doing the whole thing, he can just, on his cell phone, punch into it and the thing flies to him from the warehouse, in twenty minutes or so, saves him all that time and fuel and the air pollution, and maybe getting in an accident, all these things that could happen. So it is going to change the world and how we look at it. That part I do know. How it’s going to do it, and to what level, only time will tell. Again, I go back to the analogy of the cell phone. You couldn’t have predicted, in the year 2000, that you would have 80 percent of the world, and what the cell phone would look like today. No one knew that writing apps would be a six-figure salary. We didn’t even know what an app was. It didn’t exist. But the technology allowed that to take place. So I believe there is unlimited potential for this technology to revolutionize how we do business in this world in almost every aspect.

Richard Whittle is the author of Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution. He is a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a Research Associate at the National Air and Space Museum.

Join Our Mailing List

First Name:
Last Name: